I’ve got a fairly long history with the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Like how many reacted when first hearing about this mockumentary, I wasn’t sure if this was about a real or a fake band. Having seen the group previously on The Simpsons did nothing to settle that uncertainty. To add even further to my confusion, an issue of Guitar World magazine that my brother owned listed lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) as one of the top 100 guitarists of all-time. However, after watching just a few minutes of the film in my high school years, I quickly understood that there was no way in hell that a living, breathing band could act so absurdly. I can’t pinpoint exactly when or where I first watched it, but I do know it was a VHS rental. Long story short, I loved the movie so much that it ended up being my very first DVD purchase after my family finally got a DVD player in 2003.
To simply reflect on the best gags and scenes in the film would be almost pointless because I feel that many of them have been discussed to death. The amp that goes up to 11, the band getting lost backstage, their awful luck with drummers, the Stonehenge mix-up, and the completely black album cover are all classics without question, but I want to take a look at some of the Spinal Tap moments that don’t seem to be as often discussed.
I won’t include any bits from extended cuts of the film or the 70 minutes of extra scenes provided on most copies of the DVD and Blu-Ray. None of the extra details of the band’s history from the Spinal Tap: The Big Book will be analyzed, though I do highly recommend that supplemental reading material. On this occasion, in my five moments I’m pulling solely from the standard 82-minute version of the film.
In no particular order, here are my selections for five underrated aspects of This Is Spinal Tap.
1) The Hotel Lobby scene
Forgive me for the dicey quality of the video I provide here as it’s the best I could locate (see Source 1, and Source 2). Albeit a short scene, it can be broken into two sections with two main interactions within the hotel lobby, both of which are gems.
The first of these involves a complaint about a lost room reservation. Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), is naturally the man in charge here. His character was largely based off Led Zeppelin’s tour manager Peter Grant, a man with a reputation for being a no-nonsense guy as notably displayed in the concert film The Song Remains the Same. He does not have the intimidating stature of Grant, though he does carry a cricket bat with him. Rather, he lets his mouth do the intimidating, and his victim in this case is a man at the counter charmingly named Smitty (played by Paul Benedict).
The mix-up in question is that there was a confessed “slight problem” with the reservation. Instead of seven suites, the group was booked on the seventh floor with one suite. Benedict played this employee as rather laid back, someone not used to being abused in spite of making a rather large error which may or may not be a regular occurrence with him. “I’m just as God made me!” is such a great response to the abuse he is putting up with from Ian. How else can you retort to being called a “twisted old fruit”? That “fruit” line may have been as a retort to Smitty’s slightly off-colour response to Ian’s question about how they can possibly fit fourteen people into a King Leisure bed (“Don’t tempt me, sir!”). That line was a bit mumbled and hard to make out, so it took me a few watches before I picked up on it.
Any way you slice it, Smitty is clearly a flawed employee if the error was, in fact, his. He appears apologetic albeit somewhat aloof the whole time, and it sounds as if this is the first time any customer has uttered such fowl insults his way. However, based on Faith’s willingness to push back and speak his mind, he could have met Mother Theresa on the other side of that desk, and still been as put off by this inconvenience. It’s a long tour and a tired band, and he’s doing what he thinks is best to look out for them. It’s not revealed in this exchange what the remedy was to this suite predicament, but if it wasn’t humiliating enough to make the cut of this movie, is must have been tolerable.
The next portion of the scene has a few rock stars crossing paths at the same hotel, which is not all that uncommon during the touring cycle for musicians. Duke Fame, played by Paul Shortino from the band Rough Cutt and later Quiet Riot, doesn’t provide much in and of himself other than a man with the look and vibe of a rock star. He has a woman on one arm, is rushed by some autograph seekers, and is accompanied by manager Terry Ladd. Terry, who is played by Howard Hessman (aka Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinnati), reluctantly greets the band. In fact, when lead vocalist / guitarist David St. Hubbins extends his hand to greet Duke Fame, the manager promptly shoves it out of the way as if he’s working security. The fact that he soon calls Ian “Liam” is a further indicator of the relationship between these parties, with any admiration being one-sided.
Just when you don’t think Terry could display his contempt for the Spinal Tap camp any further, he delivers what is one of the most underrated lines in the film: “Listen, we’d love to stand around and chat, but we gotta sit down in the lobby and wait for the limo.” That’s such a great blow-off move that leaves a good amount of uncertainty regarding the intent. If they were truly in a rush, the limo would have been there already. And it’s their limo, so it runs on their schedule. But is that how he meant it? Judging from his overall vibe, I don’t think he could have cared less how his words came across.
Naturally, one of the core Tap trio (David) puts a great exclamation mark to close the scene. In reference to Duke Fame’s performance when the bands shared billing, he bemoans that “we had to apologize for him” and that “people we’re still booing him” when they were playing. In more recent years, this gets referred to as the Slayer treatment, but of course David has conveniently misplaced the source of ire from the concert-goers.
2) Recording Issues
Here’s an example of a scene where my interest comes from something more musical than comical. There’s a scene that shows Spinal Tap in the recording studio where Nigel and David get into a heated argument over David’s girlfriend Jeanine’s involvement in the band. The sequence starts with David attempting to play a harmonized guitar lick, but he keeps screwing it up. For years, I thought this was simply a standalone riff that was used solely in this scene. However, if you buy the soundtrack for the movie, you’ll hear it used in the song “America”.
Unlike their many other songs that have become pop-culture staples, this one would leave plenty scratching their heads at the name. “America” may bring to mind the Simon and Garfunkel track of the same name, or possibly, for my fellow prog-heads, Yes’ radical reinterpretation of it. The Tap track is played so briefly that I wouldn’t blame someone for never having heard it. Why didn’t more of it appear in This Is Spinal Tap? It could be that the song was incomplete at the time of filming, and maybe they were recording it around that time (could this have been an outtake from the soundtrack’s recording session?). It could also be that the song was not considered to be funny enough to make the cut of the film. Perhaps there were enough songs as it is in the movie, and it got chopped to make for a manageable running time. You even hear more of another lesser-known soundtrack song “Cups and Cakes” through a scene where the band hears it on a radio broadcast while relaxing in a hotel room.
When attention is paid to the lyrics of “America”, it’s not as outright humorous as the main songs in their repertoire, but I like how it calls out to some of the more superficial aspects of American lifestyle like the name-dropping of The Brady Bunch and Afro-Sheen. Additional passages are no less vapid than those used by many mainstream rock bands that pre-date the movie, which contribute in part of what makes Spinal Tap a great parody. It’s not as if you need to be a great poet to be a rock star!
While the movie has appeal beyond metal fans, I don’t think many would necessarily run out and buy the soundtrack if they can’t fully get into the music. Think of this scene as an Easter egg of sorts, or even a nod to those that did buy the soundtrack. As for those that didn’t buy it, plunk down that money! You can impress your friends by telling them your copy is autographed because who would be able to tell if it wasn’t?
3) Fred Willard as Colonel on Military Base
In part of what has been a steady decline in popularity and having gigs cancelled routinely for being undersold, Spinal Tap have to exercise some open-mindedness when it comes adding shows to their itinerary. This airbase show would not be rock-bottom on this tour (that would come when they opened for a puppet show), but it would prove to be the breaking point for Nigel, who ends up quitting mid-show. Before that splintering occurs, we see the band welcomed rather warmly by a colonel played by comedy veteran Fred Willard.
This scene shows precisely why Fred Willard became a reoccurring cast member in Christopher Guest’s movies like Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and my personal favourite as the dog show commentator in Best In Show. He often portrays characters with a bit of small-town innocence to them, and plays his roles relatively straight. This is how I’d best describe Willard’s part in This Is Spinal Tap.
The band also act relatively straight in this exchange, and Willard’s character never strays much further than dad-joke territory. His excitement for the band’s arrival seems to be genuine despite not being very familiar with them, even butchering their name upon introduction by calling them “Spinal Tarp”. The enthusiasm he exudes may be that he was informed that he’d be hosting rock royalty (perhaps ignoring the rock part of that equation) or it could be more that he loves his work in general.
If you were one of the people duped into believing the movie to be an authentic documentary, I could understand based on how at ease Willard is with his ability to provide accommodation to the band, and how genuine the band come off as doing their best to cope with their circumstances. Still, there are tiny pearls that Willard contributes that make you think “is he for real?” His warning to them that “I better not get too close (to you) or they’ll think I’m part of the band” stands as one of my favourite lines in the whole movie. You just know that this man was prepping that joke in his head for minutes on the walk up to meet the band, and it falls about as hard as a lead balloon.
Later on, this character asks the band if he knows of this other band he’s thinking of. Four Jacks and a Jill is a clever name to drop for a made-up band, right up there with The Pecan Sandies as band names that sound like they were from the late 1950s or 1960s. It’s definitely not the name of another heavy metal band. Maybe it’s not too far off the group’s previous incarnation as The New Originals, but he’s is in way over his head in this discussion regardless. It’s like the stereotype of the clueless American asking a Canadian if they know Bob from Vancouver no matter where in the country the Canadian resides.
Fred Willard gets less than two minutes of screen time, and he even manages to outshine the lyrical genius of “Sex Farm” from later in the scene. That’s no easy feat!
4) The other two Spinal Tap members
Unlike the rest of the points in this write-up, I can’t contain the moments of the two “silent” members of Spinal Tap to only one scene. They don’t get that many lines, but when they do they feel like just another part of a comedic ensemble.
Keyboardist Viv Savage is the one I’d call the space cadet of the band. He seems to go about his business in the manner someone that consumes some form of illicit substances would. From his being mesmerized by the “computer magic” of the video game on the tour bus to his ambiguous discussion of rocket fuel, the viewer can only imagine what’s going on inside that head of his. That’s why you should love Viv, a guy that loves to have a good time all the time. He must have made a good impression on a few others aside from me. There’s a band out there that shares his name.
The other member of Spinal Tap is Mick Shrimpton, the most recent of a long line of drummers. He doesn’t have as many good lines as the keyboardist, but he has one notable scene where he’s discussing his role in the band and his own mortality.
How comfortable and casual he seems having a soak in the bathtub! It wasn’t always a conventional spot to conduct an interview, but we’d see years later with the Chris Holmes pool scene from The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years that being partially submerged in water is as suitable a time as any. In fact, many in that documentary would echo Shrimpton’s sentiments in some form or another with his line that appears in the end credits “As long as there’s sex and drugs, I could do without the rock and roll”. I’ll be damned if one of the members of Poison didn’t say that line somewhere in that film!
If you buy into these two characters being real rock stars, that’s because they actually are. Viv Savage was played by David Kaffinetti (credited as David Kaff). He was one of the two keyboardists that were part of the progressive rock band Rare Bird. Mick Shrimpton was played by Ric Parnell, who is perhaps best known for having played in British rock band Atomic Rooster. He has a varied discography that also included stints with Italian prog-fusion band Nova, pop singer Toni Basil, and Indian musician Ravi Shankar.
These two aren’t the only musicians in Spinal Tap that you’d might recognize from the music world. Danny Kortchmar, a guitarist best known for having backed Carole King and James Taylor (he wrote “Machine Gun Kelly” for Taylor), can be seen briefly as Ronnie Pudding while the group (then called The Thamesmen) performs “Gimme Some Money”.
5) Signs of the Zodiac
This scene, according to the person that uploaded it to YouTube, is the most underrated scene in the movie, so would my list really be complete without it? It centres around Jeanine Pettibone (played by June Chadwick), who is running an idea past the band on how she thinks they can improve their stage show. What’s her idea? New stage personas!
Her idea is that each band member will dress according to their zodiac sign. What I like the most with this scene that it shows the division and tensions growing in the band so well. Nigel is just sick of this shit (both the idea and putting up with Jeanine), constantly rolling his eyes and inwardly wishing he was anywhere but there. Ian, who is seemingly being usurped by Jeanine as manager, shuts the idea down due to the cost involved in dressing them up as “animals”. Bassist Derek Smalls and Viv seemed open to the idea even if only just slightly. Even David seems to be somewhat half-heartedly showing enthusiasm based on the tone of voice he adopts while he flips through the sketches. David does his best to sell Jeanine’s vision (“I wish I were a cancer”), but it’s seems like he’s been put up to doing this. That could be me reading into a combative relationship that is more of a slow boil, a man whose soul is dying bit by bit as his girlfriend seeks more creative control, but I can’t really watch this scene thinking otherwise. It’s not chock-full of humour, but ends strong with Nigel making a great call-back from an earlier point in the movie where Jeanine mispronounced Dolby as “Dubly”.
Making David the lion, while he is a Leo, sort of shows Jeanine’s bias towards her husband in all of this. His portrayal looks much more majestic than Derek’s crab, Nigel’s goat, or Viv’s Ying-Yang man, and I’m not quite sure what creature Mick would have been (you briefly see a sketch on the table that looks like a bird, raccoon, or a cat). Personally, I think the sketches for this concept looks fantastic. On another band, I think this could have worked magnificently. It plays off of the Kiss idea of each person being a character, and thankfully they didn’t go through with it or Gene Simmons may have taken legal action. Nigel and Ian were right to fight it. Granted, the Stonehenge idea backfired, but they were right nonetheless. The Tap fans, despite having become more selective in recent years according to their manager, look for consistency in terms of how the band carries themselves on-stage.
I know this post basically reads as a transcript in parts (you can read the whole script here), but I just wanted a way to give this film some love.
Do you have any favourite moments from this film that you believe get overlooked? Has your band had a Spinal Tap moment of your own (or has your favourite band)? I’d love to hear those too, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, at least we’ve all got Spinal Tap.